Alien: Covenant review

Alien Covenant 2

WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW! (But not that many, really.)

Alien: Covenant is great fun!

…as long as you don’t bring your brain into the theater with you. Scientists and logical folks (hereafter referred to as SALFs) will be nearly as horrified with this film as they were with Prometheus. I say nearly, because the crew in this film aren’t quite as stupid as in Prometheus (can anyone forget the supposed trained biologist facing a brand new, hissing, cobra-like life form and saying, “Oh, you beauty, let me see you”?). They die because they don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell, not because they’re freaking idiots.

Although we have a lot of idiocy as well. For instance: Armed Dude 1 says “I have to take a pee” and instead goes off to smoke a cigarette — on a brand new, pristine planet they’re considering for colonization, mind you — and then FLICKS HIS CIGARETTE BUTT INTO THE BUSHES.

I said, “That dude needs to die.”

He did, and quite spectacularly. I was pleased.

The second death wasn’t nearly as pleasing, because that poor person did (almost) everything right and was trying hard to save a life, but…did I mention the snowball’s chance in hell? And for the third death, we were rooting for the human to make it out alive, but see aforementioned snowball.

The general plot of the film is: A ship carrying 2,000 colonists in cryosleep, about 1,400 frozen embryos, and 15 crew members is lumbering through space on its multi-year journey to the planet they’ve targeted for colonizing. Android Walter is the only active crew member while everyone else sleeps, but when he deploys the solar sails for a power recharge, the ship is hit by a sudden neutrino burst that rips up the sails, damages the ship, and messes with the cryosleep tubes. Subtract one crew member: the captain, who burns alive in his tube. Ugh.

After repairing the sails, nobody is eager to go back into their tubes for the several years it would take to reach their destination, because if they did, the movie would be over. Instead they make the bad, bad decision to check out this neat little planet two weeks away. Because (and here is our first groaner for the SALFs) it makes much more sense to divert course and land on a planet they didn’t even know was there, rather than continue to the planet they spent 10 months studying and preparing to colonize.

So they go to said planet, tracking an intercepted communication, and then pull a repeat of one of the worst Prometheus groaners when they don’t fly a single reconnaissance orbit but instead send out the landing shuttle immediately. Brilliant! (All SALFs groan.)

Upon landing, the new captain sets foot on the promised land and 42 seconds later brightly says this would be a great spot to colonize. Never mind that they have no idea of weather patterns, or whether winters last for 12 years, or whether this area is prone to earthquakes or tornadoes or hurricanes — you know, like the one they had to fly through to land there?

But it doesn’t matter, because the moment these poor saps landed, they were doomed. Here There Be Monsters, and the worst one isn’t even the ugliest.

Alien Covenant 1

Honey, you forgot to let the dog back in.

The rest of the film involves Android Walter meeting Android David (from Prometheus) and having some nice, philosophical sibling chitchat while various crew members die around them. At one point the new captain demonstrates why he was not chosen to be the original captain when he follows a character he knows is evil down a dark flight of stairs and into a room with some large, mysterious-looking eggs…and somehow manages to miss every nuance of menace in such dialogue as, “They’re alive, they’re just waiting” (for you, dude!) and “Go ahead, look in, it shouldn’t be missed.” At that point I threw my hands in the air and said, “Okay, he deserves to die.”

There is the usual action sequence involving an orbital lander attempting to escape the monster and the usual heroine trying to kill the monster before they go back into orbit (and it is all kinds of awesome that in this series of films, I can say “the usual heroine”), and the usual “surprise” once they get back to orbit and their colony ship…so I can’t say this film involved anything unexpected. If you’ve seen Alien and Aliens, you know what’s going to happen.

But that isn’t the point. The point is, this movie is fun. The cinematography and special effects are glorious. I’d watch it again just for those. The dialogue between the two androids is spooky and fascinating and has a couple of deep pockets of thought. The heroine is awesome and tough as nails (literally, in one instance) and makes all the right decisions. The action sequences are edge-of-seat exciting and the poor crew members die really disgusting, awful deaths with rivers of blood, so…the usual Alien fare.

So leave your logical brain at home and go enjoy yourself, and remember: litterbugs die first.

Posted in entertainment | 1 Comment

A must read: “My Family’s Slave”

The ashes filled a black plastic box about the size of a toaster. It weighed three and a half pounds. I put it in a canvas tote bag and packed it in my suitcase this past July for the transpacific flight to Manila. From there I would travel by car to a rural village. When I arrived, I would hand over all that was left of the woman who had spent 56 years as a slave in my family’s household.

Her name was Eudocia Tomas Pulido. We called her Lola.

This is a long read, and not an easy one. By that I mean, it’s impossible to draw any simple conclusions. I wanted to hate the author’s mother. I wanted to judge the author for not acting sooner. But those are simplistic reactions to a very complex set of relationships.

I think this article, by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Alex Tizon, should be required reading for all Americans. It’s beautifully written and draws you in even as it describes a lifetime of servitude and choices taken away — and love, given and received.

What made it resonate even more for me is that I recognize so many of the place names. The author and his family — including their slave Lola — lived in Salem, Oregon at the same time my family lived there. His mother worked at Fairview Hospital, where my mother had a temporary job during tax season. They took trips to Lincoln City, a coastal town I’ve stayed in and driven through more times than I can count.

Every article I’ve ever seen about modern slavery says it happens right next door. It feels different to read that in the abstract than to know it.

Maybe her life would have been better if she’d stayed in Mayantoc, gotten married, and had a family like her siblings. But maybe it would have been worse. Two younger sisters, Francisca and Zepriana, got sick and died. A brother, Claudio, was killed. What’s the point of wondering about it now? she asked. Bahala na was her guiding principle. Come what may. What came her way was another kind of family. In that family, she had eight children: Mom, my four siblings and me, and now my two daughters. The eight of us, she said, made her life worth living.

None of us was prepared for her to die so suddenly.

If you can read this and not get sniffles at the end, you are a stronger person than I.

Posted in culture, history, life | 1 Comment

Curmudgeons

A friend sent this on with a sniffle warning, and she was right. But it’s a good kind of sniffling, accompanied by laughter. If you don’t mind the potty mouths of a bunch of Brooklyn natives, with an occasional Spanish cuss tossed in (“Pendejo means handsome,” lawd, that cracked me up), this is a sweet, heartbreaking, and beautiful short film that shows it’s never too late to love.

(Hat tip to Alma.)

Posted in humor, life, video | 1 Comment

Dia da Liberdade (Freedom Day)

Last night, I was brushing my teeth when our flat was rocked with a deep BOOM.

“Fletcher!” my wife called. “Come here! Fireworks!”

I dashed down the hall and out to our smaller veranda, where Maria was already watching the show. We hadn’t expected this, because it hasn’t happened for several years due to lack of funds.

“It must be midnight,” I said as a huge ball of green sparks expanded over the southwest sky.

And it was. 12:01 a.m. on 25 April, meaning it was now the Dia da Liberdade, the anniversary of Portugal’s Carnation Revolution. The 1974 Revolution ended the 40-year Estado Novo (New State), a right-wing dictatorship that suppressed civil rights, jailed political dissidents, and waged a 13-year war to maintain control of its colonies. That war proved to be the last straw for opponents of the regime, who saw their nation spending a staggering 40% of its budget on the Colonial War — with no end in sight.

The Revolution was a military coup, but what gave it so much strength was the involvement of the people.

It began with two secret signals, both aired on the radio. First, at 10:55 p.m. on 24 April 1974, the rebel captains and soldiers were notified to get into position by a station playing that year’s Portuguese entry into the Eurovision Song Contest, “E Depois do Adeus.” One hour and 25 minutes later, at 12:20 a.m. on 25 April, a different Lisboa station played “Grândola, Vila Morena,” by Zeca Afonso. This was the signal to attack and take over strategic points of power.

The significance of the second song is that Zeca Afonso, a well-known folk singer, had seen many of his songs banned from Portuguese radio because the regime viewed them as Communist. Ironically, “Grândola, Vila Morena” was not one of the banned songs. But one month earlier, at a Lisboa concert on 24 March, Zeca performed this song and the entire audience joined in, creating a memorable moment of unity in a suppressed population. For this reason, the coup organizers chose this song as their signal to begin the revolution.

Despite radio broadcasts pleading with citizens to stay home and not get involved, thousands of people poured onto the streets of Lisboa, mingling with the insurgents and turning the coup into a people’s revolution. One of the spontaneous gathering points was the Lisboa flower market, stocked at the time with carnations, which were then in season. Many people took red carnations and held them aloft, because red symbolized socialism and communism, ideals of “power to the people” that the regime had brutally suppressed. Some of the insurgents put carnations in their gun barrels, signifying that they would not use force against the people. Photographs were taken and sent around the world, and the coup became known as the Carnation Revolution.

The spontaneous involvement of the people made it clear that the insurgents had the power of the population behind them, and the Prime Minister — who had taken refuge in a Lisboa police station, which was then surrounded by insurgents — ceded power to a popular general he had previously tried to remove due to his opposition to the Colonial War.

The entire revolution had taken six hours. The only known fatalities were four insurgents killed by the regime’s political police before the surrender. It was, in essence, a bloodless revolution. A Carnation Revolution. And it all began with this simple folk song.

Posted in history, Portugal | 1 Comment

Nat Geo moment

I miss my Oregon birds, some quite desperately (such as Anna’s and rufous hummingbirds, and Swainson’s thrushes), but there are compensations in the fabulous birds of Iberia. One of my favorites is the European bee-eater, which winters in Africa but nests in southern Europe and Asia. When I hear their distinctive purring call in the skies, I know spring has sprung.

All bee-eaters are gorgeous, but European bee-eaters are so beautiful that they seem like an exuberant painter’s idea of what a bird could be. Add to that their confident flight — they are insect eaters, catching prey on the wing, and are thus acrobats of the air — their large size, their mellow calls, and their fascinating life history, and you have the total package.

You can probably guess that bee-eaters love to eat bees. During courtship, a male will offer a female tasty morsels to prove his suitability as a mate. Often, the meals he feeds her are what give her the nutritional edge she needs to produce eggs.

Here is a male sorting out a bee before offering it to the female (left):

Pair of Merops apiaster feeding.jpg
By Pierre DalousOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

As you can imagine, eating bees is not without its dangers. Bee-eaters neutralize the sting by orienting the bee with its stinger facing outward and then whacking it on a tree branch to knock loose the sting and venom sac.

Most bee-eaters are burrow nesters, excavating burrows by breaking up the (usually hard) soil with their beaks and kicking it out behind them with their feet. Ours prefer vertical banks, which are prevalent in road cuts. There are quite a few burrows along my regular 5K hill route, so I see “my” bee-eaters every year when they arrive and happily watch them all summer long.

Which brings me to my National Geographic moment. On a walk last week, I noticed a bee-eater land in a tree about 30 meters away, holding a twig that extended several centimeters on either side of its beak. This didn’t compute, since bee-eaters don’t build nests and don’t bring any nesting material into their burrows. As a second bee-eater settled beside the first, I wondered if the twig was some sort of offering.

I stood and watched while the first bee-eater tossed its head again and again, apparently trying to reorient the twig. Then it bashed the twig on the branch it was perching on. A second later, it bashed the twig on the opposite side of its body. The other bee-eater got bored and flew to a different tree higher up the hill (the better to spot passing insects from), while the first continued to whack its twig.

Whack! Whack! Whack! Whack!

And the twig bent. In one of those “oh, of course!” moments, my vision reoriented and I realized what I was seeing. This wasn’t a twig at all, but a large grasshopper with wing covers extended out to the sides. The body was not visible, being held in the bee-eater’s beak.

Over and over, the bee-eater whacked that grasshopper into shape, knocking the wing covers back so that the whole shebang could be swallowed. Keeping in mind the size of the wing covers relative to the bird, it could only have been an Egyptian locust (Anacridium aegyptium). Males of that species grow to 55 mm (2.2 inches) while females hit 70 mm (2.8 inches). It was a huge meal for a bee-eater, but that bird was determined.

Whack! Whack! Whack! Whack!

The wing covers were eventually bent back in a delta shape, and the joints were probably nicely softened in the process. The whacking behavior also kills the prey so it won’t struggle while being eaten. With a meal of this size and strength, struggling would have been a real issue, but the bee-eater took care of that quite handily. At last it tilted its head back and swallowed — once, twice, three times, until the locust went all the way down.

I was impressed. That would be like me folding a large pizza several times and then shoving the whole thing down my throat. I probably wouldn’t be able to walk afterward. The bee-eater, however, gracefully took flight and joined its buddy up in the higher tree. They chattered together and I resumed my walk, happy to have lucked into that Nat Geo moment. These are the sorts of things that make my whole week.

Posted in Portugal, wildlife | Leave a comment

Song of Saturday

Before I could relax, I had to hang the laundry

Before I could hang the laundry, I had to water plants

(because the laundry rack blocks access to the plants)

Before I could water plants, I had to wash the dishes

(because I can’t fill the watering can in a sink full of bowls)

Before I could wash the dishes, I had to sweep the floor

And this is why it took an hour to hang the laundry.

But at least I had help.

Micah laundry

Posted in life | 4 Comments

Innovative teachers (subtitle: Ryanair is the Scrooge McDuck of airlines)

Ryanair 1000x600

Three teachers at our son’s school have been arranging a class trip to Scotland. They contacted Ryanair and asked for a group rate for 20 seats. The response was unbelievable: around €300 per seat.

This is for a short, nonstop flight from Faro to Edinburgh. It should cost nowhere near that much, especially for a group rate of so many seats.

So the teachers abandoned that plan and instead hopped on the laptop of one instructor, from which they bought six tickets. Then they opened up another laptop, using a different ISP, and bought a few more. By their third attempt, the prices were already going up.

They waited a few days, giving the Ryanair algorithm time to respond to the lack of purchases and lower the seat pricing again. Then they bought a few more.

In this way, and spaced over the course of several days, these three teachers purchased 20 seats on the same flight.

Their average price per seat? Around €140.

I applaud their savvy and persistence in getting rates that Portuguese parents can afford. After all, we work for some of the lowest wages in the EU while paying some of the highest taxes — a killer combination that doesn’t allow Portuguese to travel much. For most of these students, this will be the first time they’ve ever seen another country besides Spain.

But what the hell is wrong with you, Ryanair? Schoolteachers call you for a group rate of 20 seats and you highball them? Have you never heard of a group discount? How about an educational discount? Or basic decency?

This is how your airline became the punchline for so many jokes. You earned it.

Posted in travel | 10 Comments

Strange weather

It’s been an odd winter in the Algarve this year. Mostly quite warm, and not enough rain, but then there was a week where it was unusually cold. I drove to my Pilates class in the morning and our car made the little “ding” it does when it wants to alert us to something: in this case, the warning that it was now 3º Celsius outside and icy roads were a possibility.

Then I began to see tiny, drifting bits of white.

We live in the flat part of the Algarve — the rolling plain that reaches from the base of the coastal hills to the ocean. It doesn’t snow here.

Since snow was not a possible explanation for the white floaty things, I concluded that perhaps they were bits of almond blossoms, because the trees were in full bloom at the time and the countryside was studded with them. Of course, I had no explanation for what would cause almond blossoms to disintegrate into such tiny pieces.

Another kilometer of driving and there were far more of those white bits, at which point the almond blossom theory went out the window. It was actually snowing. Not much, and certainly not sticking, but that was real, live snow.

A kilometer more and there were so many tiny flakes in the air that they were ticking against my windshield. I arrived at the museum where I teach, got out of the car, and boggled at the sensation of snow on my face. Then I walked into the museum’s courtyard, where I found one of the employees standing in her open office doorway, staring out in absolute amazement. She looked at me and said, “Is this snow?”

She had never seen it before, so she had to ask.

Then in late February, we had the sandstorm from North Africa. Once again I was on my way to Pilates class, and when I pulled out of our garage into the street, the whole world looked wrong. The sky was tan-colored, and the streets looked washed out — it was as if I had just emerged into a monochrome movie.

As I drove through town, every car parked on the sides of the streets was covered with orangish dust. So were the streets and sidewalks.

Dustcar

This was at the same time that the UK got hammered with high winds, so I think the pressure gyres might have pulled this weather up from North Africa. It happens now and again, but almost always in the summer — that’s when we get freakishly hot temperatures and orange skies, but even then we don’t get the dust. This was seriously weird.

My students reported that the phenomenon reached across the Algarve, and everyone who had left cars out or laundry hanging overnight had a lot of work to do.

Upon driving home, the suspended dust particles were even thicker, so I stopped for this photo:

Dustsky

…which is terrible quality but nevertheless shows how dark it was. That is not clouds hiding the sun. It’s dust.

Strange weather.

Posted in Portugal, weather | 2 Comments

No good deed goes unpunished

I am recovering today from a misadventure. Yesterday, while cutting through the nearby park on my regular hill walk, I came across a curious sight: a whole pile of cute, fuzzy caterpillars on the sidewalk. Given their position, I thought they might have fallen from a webby nest overhead, but couldn’t find anything of the sort.

The caterpillars were having a hard time. This is a popular park among joggers and walkers, and very few of them watch where they put their feet. There was a lot of squishage.

Since I cannot walk away from critters in need, I set about rescuing the caterpillars that had survived. One by one, I picked them up and tossed them off the sidewalk, until about thirty of them were safely wandering about in the pine duff.

Orugas.JPG
By Asqueladd, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

About half an hour later, as I rounded the midpoint of my hill climb, I realized I’d been scratching my right hand without being aware of it. It had several raised welts.

I said, “Oh crap. Urticating hairs.”

There are several species of plants (think stinging nettles), spiders, and caterpillars that utilize urticating hairs as a defense mechanism. These are tiny, detachable hairs that deliver a toxin and cause itching and swelling in the victim, sometimes to the point of respiratory distress if the hairs have gotten into the nose or throat. I’m used to fuzzy woolly bear caterpillars from my home state; the idea of having to be careful of caterpillars here had not crossed my mind.

It occurred to me then that despite the appearance of sixty or so juicy caterpillars in an exposed, easily visible location, there had been no birds dining on this feast. I bet myself that when I walked back through the park, the squished ones would still be there.

They were. Obviously the Algarvean birds are far better informed than I was. (I’ve since learned that the great tit, Parus major, can eat them, but I didn’t hear any of those in the park yesterday.)

Upon returning home, I washed my hands thoroughly under cold water and found that actually made it worse. Then I hit the shower and oh yes, hot water helps. Temporarily.

The problem is that I had sweated on my hill climb, so I pushed up my sweatshirt sleeves and pulled my collar away from my neck. My hands had urticating hairs all over them, and they transfer easily. Result: I had a rash of raised welts all along my forearms and the back of my neck. Our bottle of Calamine lotion got a workout (it’s called Caladryl in Portugal).

A web search for “caterpillars + urticating + Portugal” procured an answer on the very first hit. They are pine processionary moth caterpillars, Thaumetopoea pityocampa, and wow are they nasty. Vets in the area know all about them, because dogs regularly get into these caterpillars with devastating results, including respiratory distress and death. Survivors sometimes have to have their tongues partially amputated.

Nor is the damage limited to dogs. Even without touching them, humans with heightened sensitivity can be affected when the wind blows loose hairs from caterpillar nests. Besides the skin rash and inflammation, respiratory issues can result without the victim having any idea of the cause.

The caterpillars themselves are really quite fascinating. They’re in the silk moth family, and live in silky “tents” they weave for themselves at the tips of pine branches. At night, they exit the nest to feed on pine needles, then return to the safety of their tent during the day.

Nest of Pine Processionary Moth caterpillars (detail).JPG
By Chiswick ChapOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

January through March is when they’re a real problem in Portugal. This is when they leave the nest permanently, march down the tree trunk, and look for soft soil to burrow into for their chrysalis stage. The spring migration is where the “processionary” part of their name comes into play, because they march head to tail, in a long, uninterrupted line.

Thaumetopea.pityocampa.01.jpg
Public Domain, Link

Woe betide any dog that sticks their nose into those. Or well-meaning humans who pick them up bare-handed.

At the end of the summer, the adult moths hatch out, and the females search for mates and a good-looking pine on which to lay their eggs. They have one day to accomplish their task. This means the range expansion is limited to how far an adult moth can fly in one day, but for all that, the pine processionary moth has a large range that encompasses much of southern Europe.

It appears that the toxins in urticating hairs get worse in a warm, humid environment, and I sleep hot. When I woke up this morning, my reaction had gotten far worse and is now doing a fair imitation of chicken pox. At this rate, I’m going to use up that bottle of Caladryl. I may be hitting the pharmacy tomorrow for a topical antihistamine.

At this point, I’m just grateful that I didn’t wipe the sweat out of my eyes on that walk. But at least I now know all about pine processionary caterpillars.

They’re still cute.

Posted in biology, Portugal | 25 Comments

Raise your hand if you remember the modem dial-up tone

In this video from Wired, two sonic branding experts take us on a tour of the world’s most recognizable tones, chimes, and sound blends, and explain why they impact us the way they do. Sonic branding is designed to grab us in certain ways, and some of these sounds are very much embedded in our psyches.

They also date us. I remember the first time I heard the THX sound in a theater–it blew my eyebrows back and fried my brain. That sound was amazing. And then there’s the scratchy, awful, atonal, teeth-gritting sound of a modem dialup. Do you recall scrambling to turn down the volume so you wouldn’t wake up your parents/roommate/anyone else in the house with that infernal screeching? And yet it was a wonderful sound because it signified the opening of a gateway to a whole new world.

It occurred to me that my 16-year-old son has never heard that sound in real usage and won’t have any of the associations with it that I do. But then, he would probably recognize all of the gaming console sounds while I don’t know a single one of them.

Sounds are closely tied to memory and emotion. Sound embeds itself in our lives. The fact that some of these sounds make me smile or feel nostalgic is a testament to their power. It’s no wonder that Apple’s discard of the classic Mac start-up chime in the new MacBook Pros has left so many users feeling bereft. (But take heart: you can get it back with a simple Terminal command.)

And oh, that Law and Order dum dum. Who knew it was supposed to be the sound of a jail door closing?

(Edited to add: I’ve just learned that the embedded video is not viewable in the US. Try this site, which seems to have bypassed the regional restrictions.)

Posted in culture | 2 Comments